Towards A World of Smaller Books

by Henry on February 9, 2010

“Ezra Klein”:http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/2010/02/against_books_–_sort_of.html

bq. It is true that for the best books, there is no substitute for a book. I do not want to read Robert Caro’s blog posts if they will delay his final volume on Lyndon Johnson by so much as an hour. But for many books, a few blog posts, or an article, would work just fine, and the reader would save a lot of time in the process. And time has value.

I think you can push this argument further. I would estimate that about 80% of the non-academic non-fiction books that I do not find a complete waste of time (i.e. good books in politics, economics etc – I can’t speak to genres that I don’t know) are at least twice as long as they should be. They make an interesting point, and then they make it again, and again, padding it out with some quasi-relevant examples, and tacking on a conclusion about What It All Means which the author clearly doesn’t believe herself. The length of the average book reflects the economics of the print trade and educated guesses as to what book-buyers will actually pay for, much more than it does the actual intellectual content of the book itself. Length may also, of course, reflect some practical judgments concerning the book as a display object (I seem to remember Tyler Cowen somewhere suggesting that only a relatively small percentage of books bought are actually _read_ ). Books which are, for example, extended versions of articles written for _The Atlantic_, _The Public Interest_ or what have you are _especially likely_ to be over-long for their topic – I don’t remember ever reading one of these books and feeling that I got substantial insights which were unavailable in the original article (in some cases it might have been useful to have a better sourced and slightly better fleshed out version of the original piece available somewhere, perhaps half the length again of the original piece, but there doesn’t appear to be a market for that).

All this may be changing as we move towards an electronic book publishing system. The economics of electronic text production are not the same as the economics of book production (as best as I understand either), and there aren’t the same pressures towards standardization of length. I suspect that people who would feel cheated if they paid ‘book’ price for a long essay (say around 20,000 words or so) will feel less so if they buy an electronic version. Ideally, we will end up in a world where people won’t feel obliged to pad out what are really essays to book length in order to get published and compensated. If I’m right, we will see a lot more essay-length publications than we used to. I suspect too that the effects will be non-symmetrical – that is that we will see an explosion in the number of very short books/essays, which will be somewhat cheaper than traditional books, but not very cheap, a moderate decrease in the number of ‘standard’ (say, 60,000-90,000 word length) books, and stability or decrease in the number of long books (books with 100,000+ words). Long books still cost a lot of money to edit. I also suspect that we will see traditional printed books become (a) more expensive, and (b) more beautiful – their main value will be as display items rather than use items. Of course, I have no direct experience of the publishing industry (except as author) and know that several of our commenters know more, and have strong opinions, so look forward to being corrected on any or all of the above …

How can schools use research?

by Harry on February 9, 2010

Madison School Board member Lucy Mathiak, with a lament that, presumably, all thinking school board officials in the US share:

For years, MMSD staff have advocated for their proposals and programming choices by arguing that they are research-based data driven best practices. At times, I have wondered whether the research selected has undergone critical review. That is, do the people selecting the research stop to ask whether the research is methodologically sound with verifiable results, much less whether it was conducted on populations or under conditions that are comparable to the Madison public school district.

I’ve also wondered at an understanding of research that ignores entire bodies of data or work that falls outside of the narrow educational research paradigm. (Prime examples of the latter case include the district’s unwillingness to consider the considerable body of research on how children learn to read that is carried out by cognitive psychologists, linguists, and communicative disorder researchers. But that’s another post.)

What follows is my longwinded response, which builds up to a plea for Districts (or groups of districts) and States to establish local versions of the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Mathiak’s particular concern is that the only source concerning underrepresented minorities mentioned by name in a report on TAG developments is by Ruby Payne, who is not a researcher, and self-publishes. Whatever the merits of this particular instance of the worry, it is a shared worry for a reason. Educational research (broadly construed as it should be) is voluminous, to say the least, and even much of the best of it is not designed, or written, to be readily accessible to non-academics. Educational leaders, whether at the school or district level, are not trained in the consumption of educational research: in fact, they are not even presented with a great deal of it during their training, even for the purpose of learning what it says. Preparing them would be quite difficult, for a couple of reasons. First, education is beset by a culture of deference to ideological commitments, which makes it quite difficult to have some kinds of discussion in a way that is really sensitive to the evidence. Consider inclusion – the policy of including children with special educational needs in the regular classroom – which is, in some quarters, a matter of faith of such strength that evidence is really irrelevant. It is similarly difficult in some districts and schools to have an evidence-sensitive discussion of racial achievement gaps. When you do have the discussion, furthermore, it is not necessarily the discussion you think you are having! (The most unnerving conversation I had with a superintendent was one in which the superintendent told me that his district uses Ronald Ferguson’s work to design their policies around the racial achievement gap, which I would think was a pretty good idea had he not just told me, as truth, a whole bunch of claims that I had, the previous day, read a Ronald Ferguson essay disproving). Training leaders to conduct such discussions in these circumstances, in which some of them have, themselves, made the particular commitments of faith, is no easy task.

[click to continue…]

Japanese Paper Theater

by John Holbo on February 9, 2010

Here’s a handsome coffee table book I’ve been wanting for a while: Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater [amazon]. And you know what! I just ordered it, because for some reason Amazon has it for sale for $6.46, instead of $35. Go figure. I advise you to order your own copy before they come to their senses.

Let me quote the product description, by way of posing my question for the day:

Before giant robots, space ships, and masked super heroes filled the pages of Japanese comic books – known as manga – such characters were regularly seen on the streets of Japan in kamishibai stories. Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater tells the history of this fascinating and nearly vanished Japanese art form that paved the way for modern-day comic books, and is the missing link in the development of modern manga.

During the height of kamishibai in the 1930s, storytellers would travel to villages and set up their butais (miniature wooden prosceniums), through which illustrated boards were shown. The storytellers acted as entertainers and reporters, narrating tales that ranged from action-packed westerns, period pieces, traditional folk tales, and melodramas, to nightly news reporting on World War II. More than just explaining the pictures, a good storyteller would act out the parts of each character with different voices and facial expressions. Through extensive research and interviews, author Eric P. Nash pieces together the remarkable history of this art and its creators. With rare images reproduced for the first time from Japanese archives, including full-length kamishibai stories, combined with expert writing, this book is an essential guide to the origins of manga.

I’m a comics guy, so this is very interesting to me. Let’s think about it theoretically – in a McCloudish sequential visual art-ish way. Suppose you want to tell a story (tell anything) in pictures, and you want to get reasonable distribution. First, you can bring the people to you. Go monumental. Build something that lots of people can come and see on a regular basis. Paint the ceiling of your church, or carve your images into the walls of a public building/structure. This has been done at many times and in many places. It is a time-honored method for getting lots of people to see your sequential visual art. Second, you can make lots of copies that you distribute widely. This modern method works great as well. Third, you sort of split the difference. You make some copies, but not too many; and you make them large, but still portable. And you make the circuit with them, ‘performing’ for relatively small, paying audiences. Comics as traveling theater. Well, obviously the Japanese went that route for a time. Who else has? It seems odd to me that there aren’t more examples of this kind of thing. It’s seems a natural sort of middle ground to hit upon when you don’t have enough cash for a cathedral and no one has invented cheap enough printing yet (yes, I know there was cheap printing by the 30’s. I’m sure you get what I’m saying.) There’s puppet theater. Why not more of this ‘comics’ theater thing? Who did this before or besides the Japanese (or after)?

Obviously it doesn’t go just for sequential visual art. Any old picture that you wanted to share around might pose you this distribution dilemma. But the theater formula seems particularly winning, potentially. It also seems like the sort of thing that you could do even if you didn’t have, say, paper. Fabric. Wood. Lots of cultures have had access to basic materials that might have served, and that wouldn’t have been prohibitively expensive for small-time operators. So are there more examples of ‘comic’ theater, in the sequential visual art sense?

I’m still waiting for my copy, obviously. I don’t know much about the Japanese case yet. Maybe some of these larger questions are addressed in the book.